It was a long, intense trip - six weeks and 9,000 km exploring the roots of American music across the Southeast states. By the end, it had been like following a serpentine music trail and we began to appreciate how the various musical genres were intertwined and cross-influenced. Craig's fingers got a workout on his guitar, as he jammed and played with the talented musicians from old-time to Zydeco to the Delta blues. We had the time of our lives.
Two decades ago, the United States Congress designated jazz “a rare and valuable national American treasure.” Indeed, there is no other spot on the continent steeped in the origins and early history of jazz. It's on every street corner and along every boulevard. In New Orleans, the landscape of jazz isn’t just abstract. It’s real.
Best musical stops: Frenchmen Street jazz clubs, Congo Square, Preservation Hall, New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, almost any street or square in the French Quarter for the street performers
Jazz is one of those terms that everyone knows when they hear it but no one can adequately define. It’s a fusion of different influences, notably black slave field songs, African-American gospel, rhythms from the Caribbean and harmonies and melodies from European classical music.
Chronologically jazz is the little brother of the blues as they both sprang from the same cultural, ethnic and geographical womb. The earliest origins of jazz are contested but most historians cite New Orleans as its birthplace. From there it gets really complicated and — for a while — politically interesting as it made inroads into white culture and upset established conventions because of its proclivity for improvisation: i.e., for going beyond the notes authorized by the composer and printed on the sheet music, and its close association with former slaves and their descendants. Even the label — ‘jazz' — is contentious because of its early association with the bordellos of Storyville in New Orleans.
Today jazz is properly regarded as America’s greatest gift to the world of culture, and jazz artists are among the most revered of all musicians. Names like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis bestride the musical landscape like titans, as indeed they are.
Although jazz took root in many American cities — Kansas City, New York and Chicago to name a few — and acquired its own distinctive qualities in those places, you really need to visit the corner of South Rampart and Perdido Streets in New Orleans where a young Louis Armstrong fired a pistol into the air on New Years' Eve and got himself incarcerated in the Coloured Waif's Home where they gave him a cornet (probably Civil War vintage) to occupy his time.
The world of music is a better place for that first cornet at young Armstrong’s lips. Of course he grew up in a veritable stew of music and culture and life in all its forms. And there were lots of great musicians to mentor the young Armstrong on his climb to the top. One of the reasons we revere “Pops” is because he left behind a huge archive of recordings and because he so obviously enjoyed the presentation of his craft — just listen to how often he laughs in his many live recordings — to say nothing of the millions of players who were drawn to the honeypot of jazz by exposure to his musical legacy.
Must-See Jazz Locations in NOLA (*New Orleans, Louisiana)
Any street in the French Quarter is likely to feature a jazz band — usually young but deeply committed devotees of their craft out on the street cutting their chops for coins. You’ll see some wonderful players, singers and dancers in the most unlikely places.
The Court of Two Sisters boasts the French Quarter’s largest courtyard, amply shaded by a 120-year-old wisteria. The brunch buffet is the perfect way to combine tasting all the NOLA classic dishes (from turtle soup and shrimp étouffée to bread pudding and bananas foster) while the notes of a live jazz trio percolates across the courtyard.
Preservation Hall is the iconic setting for traditional New Orleans jazz. The 45-minute show is held nightly at what is probably the oldest largely intact jazz venue in the city. It’s hot and cramped, but the music is as authentic as it gets, played by some of the city’s finest jazz artists. Sit as close as possible for the full jazz experience.
Enjoy the city’s excellent, spontaneous street musicians (and leave a tip in their fiddle cases). You’ll find them on most street corners, but head for Royal Street and Jackson Square where they play in front of St. Louis Cathedral.
Just east of the French Market, the two-block area of Frenchmen Street is where the locals have migrated to hear the strains of authentic jazz. Clubs like Snug Harbor, Blue Nile and The Spotted Cat Music Club host big names like Ellis Marsalis and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.
Louis Armstrong Park, also the location of Congo Square, is where jazz fans go to gaze at the statute of “Pops” a.k.a. “Satch" a.k.a. “Satchmo" a.k.a. "Dippermouth" a.k.a. “Satchelmouth.” It’s also a great place to catch a “second line” jazz band and follow them around for a couple of tunes. Dance if you dare — or dance if you don’t dare!
New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park is located at the Old U.S. Mint building at the east end of the French Quarter. Climb the steps to the second floor for a display of period photographs and video on jazz in NOLA, with special attention paid to Preservation Hall. You can fawn over Louis Armstrong’s first cornet (considered the “Holy Grail” of jazz history) and Fats Domino’s white grand piano.
Music spills out of various venues along Bourbon Street, but with a lot of debauchery mixed in too. The locals reminisce about the good ol’ days on Bourbon Street – when clubs and restaurants were filled with authentic jazz and ladies and their escorts dressed to the nines for an evening out. We found that 15 minutes in this milieu was quite enough for us. Frenchmen Street is just as hip without the depravity.
Classic artists and tunes:
Jazz Me Blues, Original Dixieland Jazz Band
Take The 'A' Train, Duke Ellington
On The Sunny Side Of The Street, Louis Armstrong
Right Place Wrong Time, Dr. John
Beale Street Blues, W.C. Handy